Communication Makes Employee Involvement Work

By Gonring, Matthew P. | Public Relations Journal, November 1991 | Go to article overview

Communication Makes Employee Involvement Work


Gonring, Matthew P., Public Relations Journal


Employees are taking over the workplace, and corporate communicators who don't abet the revolution may wind up keeping their jobs, but losing their budget and staff. Hierarchical structures are crumbling. The explicit, and even implicit, contracts between employer and employee are being rewritten.

Employees expect respect, rewards and a voice in decisions that affect them. They thrive on recognition of their value as individuals. Employers, on the other hand, increasingly are making known their own demands. In return for meeting employee expectations, management is requiring cooperation, flexibility, skills development and quality. Employee involvement (EI) programs help achieve employees' desires for empowerment and employers' demands for a commitment to organizational goals.

According to a recent report in "First Draft," a communication newsletter, EI programs have improved overall company performance. The newsletter cited a survey of line managers conducted earlier this year by Industry Week and The Wyatt Co. Of the respondents from companies with high employee involvement, 76% reported improved quality, 73% increased productivity and 59% increased profitability. Moreover, 92% of the respondents from these companies agreed that employees are motivated to help the company succeed. In contrast, only 49% of the respondents from companies with low employee involvement reported this motivation.

"There's a fundamental change going on," said Dr. Gwen Stern, director of organizational research and analysis for Wyatt. "Companies are looking at EI as a way to solve business problems." Indeed, 78% of the 845 survey repondents said they work for companies with some form of EI program, and 44% said their companies are deeply committed to EI.

Culture determines commitment

A company's commitment to EI determines how effective the effort will be, according to "First Draft." And the corporate culture of the organization determines its willingness to make such a commitment, according to the latest reported results from "Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management," a study by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundation.

The study found that, no matter what the values and characteristics of a particular organization, there are actually only two basic corporate cultures: authoritarian and participative. All organizations have characteristics of both cultures, but one or the other will dominate. (See chart, page 38.)

The authoritarian culture is one of restrictive control of employee behavior, where innovation is stifled, departments operate as separate fiefdoms, employees fear their supervisors, and decisions are made centrally by the dominant coalition. The participative culture, on the other hand, is characterized by teamwork, and shared power and decision making, with work guided by common goals and the organization as a whole open to new ideas.

Clearly, EL programs are much more likely to occur in participative cultures. The more participative the culture, the higher the commitment presumably will be.

Employees at different levels have varying opinions about their company's culture. The Industry Week/Wyatt survey found marked differences in perceptions about organizational values. Almost seven out of 10 (69%) senior managers said that their organization's management style encouraged treating employees with respect, while only 24% of the line supervisors felt that way. Similarly, 64% of the responding top managers believed that their organization's management style encouraged freedom of expression, while only 29% of line supervisors agreed with this view.

Inspire belief in concept

Corporate communications is in a unique position to help the organization's culture to be more participative and to help introduce and sustain EI as a philosophy the organization can embrace.

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